Nearly three quarters of a century later, the words “Pearl Harbor” still have a unique meaning to the American people. The image of the sunken USS Arizona, where half of the 2400 casualties remain, still conveys one of the country’s most lasting symbols. But what does the image symbolize, and why is it lasting?
In his address to Congress the day after December 7, 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt accurately prophesied that Pearl Harbor Day would live “in infamy,” but he underestimated the symbolism. Infamy implies treachery, and the immediate impact certainly emphasized that characteristic of the “unprovoked and dastardly” attack. Pearl Harbor came without warning and was accompanied by simultaneous Japanese attacks across the Pacific against both U.S. and British territories: Hong Kong, Guam, Wake, Midway, the Philippines, and Malaya. The immediate national anger against the nature of the treachery slowly gave way to the deeper realization that Pearl Harbor was a turning point in national history and that no looking back was possible.
The first realization struck immediately that the safety and security of the country behind two oceans was a thing of the past. Since Washington’s Farewell Address in 1796, Americans grew accustomed to the ingrained geopolitical belief that their “isolationism” was guaranteed by their location. The young Abe Lincoln spoke for most Americans in 1836 with these penetrating reflections on national security: “Shall we expect some transatlantic military giant to step the ocean and crush us at a blow? Never! All the armies of Europe, Asia and Africa combined with all the treasure of the earth, with a Bonaparte for a commander, could not by force take a drink from the Ohio or make a track on the Blue Ridge in a trial of a thousand years.”
That history lay buried next to the Arizona.
With isolationism gone, the logical sequence saw the United States join in a grand global coalition of nations against the Axis. Literally overnight, the United States became the defender of most of humanity, democracy, liberty, and all of the value systems cherished by free peoples going back centuries. Like Pearl Harbor itself, this was not an American decision. Four days after the attack, December 11, 1941, both Hitler and Mussolini declared war, sparing the American Congress the agony of deciding on a two front war and, in the process, forcing the U.S. to accept leadership of what later came to be known as the “Free World.” After centuries of isolation, this country became a “superpower” within a few days.
This responsibility has been with the U.S. since. Within the wartime coalition, which began in peacetime with NATO in 1949, the U.S. solidified its “special” relationship with Great Britain, which fulfilled Winston Churchill’s cherished goal going back to American involvement in World War I. The fact of Pearl Harbor and the subsequent reality of Anglo-American strategic cooperation not only won the Second World War but continued throughout the century, including the Thatcher-Reagan alliance that ended the Cold War. This relationship, which would not have been realized without Pearl Harbor, made the political trajectory of the twentieth century a by-product of the English-speaking peoples, a fact that can be considered as the outstanding reality of the entire period.
This, also, is ongoing into the twenty-first century and the war against Islamic terrorism.
Domestic unity is another direct result of the Pearl Harbor attack, but the effects of this are far more elusive than the effects upon the political world. Prior to the attack, American society had been bitterly split in half between the isolationists, represented mostly in Congress and the Midwest, and interventionists, led by President Roosevelt and eastern constituents. There seemed to be no resolution between this split until Pearl Harbor closed all debate and produced a unity, an energy, and a momentum not seen before or since. The greatest isolationist group of U.S. history, America First, which included the aviator hero Charles Lindbergh, the Ambassador to Britain Joseph Kennedy, and his young son John, abruptly closed its doors shortly after Pearl Harbor. Such a show of unity embraced all walks of domestic life, media and theatrical, unions, management, both political parties, all interest groups, women, men, the literati, Christians, Jews, and denominations of all stripes. From 1942 on, there was no commercial construction, from cars to dishwashers; all food was rationed and travel restricted. Indeed, America was on lockdown, but the war lasted less than four years.
Fast forward to the present. The U.S. has been involved against Islamic terrorism since 1983 when 240 Marines were killed in a bombing in Lebanon. Decades later, there is still no resolution. The political system is divided between “reds” and “blues,” and the country is widely accused of all kinds of social abuses, sexism and racism among others.
But Pearl Harbor remains sacrosanct.